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Big cats that once roamed the Persian Empire

The Asiatic or Iranian Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus ssp.venaticus) once thrived from the Arabian Peninsula to India. Nowadays, this subspecies, defined as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, is considered to survive only in Iran, mostly in east-central provinces of Yazd and Semnan.

Considered one of the most endangered cats on Earth, there might be only 60 to 100 individuals left, with less than half likely to consist of mature breeding individuals.

As their cousins in Africa, Asiatic Cheetahs need large areas of undisturbed land with sufficient wild prey to survive. Such habitats are becoming increasingly scarce and their favorite meal (jebeer and goitered gazelles, as well as wild sheeps and goats) are disappearing.

persian leopard

In 2007, the WCS and the Panthera Foundation, together with the Iran DoE and with the support of UNDP have radio-collared two males in the Bafgh Protected Area (PA), near Yazd, for the first time. Ironically one of them was killed by a Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus ssp. saxicolor or ciscaucasica), another endangered species, in a fight over food.

Until the first half of the 20th century, Iran was home to four of the so-called big cats – including lions and tigers – but nowadays only leopards and cheetahs remain. Recognizing there’s an urgency to act, the government of Iran has even been working with Americans to try to give these species a brighter future. What is certain is that establishing effective and enforced PAs network, involving villagers in awareness and ecotourism programmes and identifying preferred habitats and movements of these two species are essential if Iran doesn’t want to lose another national symbol, such as the Persian Lion (Panthera leo ssp. persica) and the Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. virgata), officially extinct in the early ‘70s.

Desert view in Yazd province, Iran

As we are driving across the desert near Yazd, I spot a hole in the mountain. It could well be a cheetah’s den. My imagination suddenly kicks off and takes me beyond the arid plains, behind the shadows of these rocks. And I can see cheetahs running and hunting, leopards playing and resting. Yes, knowing that there are still a few animals left in this region makes a difference. It offers me the right to dream.

PS: I have tried to get in contact with some of the people involved in these conservation programmes to learn about the current status, but at the time of writing I got no answers. More information can be found below:

The Iranian Cheetah Society: http://www.wildlife.ir
Persian Leopard Conservation Society: http://persianleopardcs.org
Iran – Environment and nature: http://www.parstimes.com/environment/
IUCN Red List:  http://www.iucnredlist.org
Wildlife Conservation Society: http://www.wcs.org


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